Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Howlin Wolf Centennial

Howlin Wolf will be a century old this year. Chester Arthur Burnett was born June 10, 1910. This year is his Centennial. I’m not sure how we as a nation should commemorate this milestone, I just know that we, as a nation, must.

Howlin Wolf is called the greatest Blues singer and he is that. Yet, he is more than just the best the genre produced. He is more than the epitome of Blues Singing. He is one of the greatest singers ever, regardless of genre. The emotional expression, the phrasing, the robust power—Howlin has it all. But because the voice was not pretty, and because he used that voice to sing the Blues, he’s never given the appropriate credit, respect and appreciation.

That distinctive voice can also over shadow his other very considerable gifts. He was a great songwriter, a great guitar player, especially slide guitar and one of the best harmonica players in the history of that instrument.

If you know anything about Howlin Wolf then I’m probably telling you nothing you don’t already know.

I believe the greatness of Howlin Wolf transcends the Blues, transcends even music itself. He is one of the greatest artists this country—or any country—has ever produced. His songs are about deep and universal truths, they tell us what it means to be human. Howlin Wolf sings about the mystery of the human heart, about how sorrow accompanies romantic love.

There are as many and usually more moments of beauty—which is ultimately, truth—in the songs of Howlin Wolf as there are in any body you can name. Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Billy Holiday, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, James Brown...Elvis...and whoever else YOU want to add. Those names come to my mind because they instantly invoke respect. Scholars, critics, historians and aficionados have written reams of study, praise, and analysis showing how their music transcends not just their individual musical genre but even music itself. Those opinion makers and cultural judges appraise their work by the broader terms of art and civilization. Their contributions can be considered alongside say, Whitman, Melville, Hemmingway, Faulkner, Carver. Howlin Wolf must be placed in that pantheon of great American artists. In fact, he is already there and it’s up to the rest of us to realize that.

I may not hold the record but I remain in contention for biggest Dylan freak ever. I’ve had moments listening to Coltrane that nearly are as spiritual as anything my Faith bestows. Elvis is my King (and yours if you know which way is up Rock & Roll wise). But Howlin transcends them for me. Yes, he transcends even Dylan. His songs are more like the poems of William Blake. No, Howlin may be even more important than Blake. Psalms (yep, the ones in the bible, those Psalms), that’s the only adequate analogy. You read the Psalms your entire life, because no matter how familiar they may be to you, each time they inspire revelations anew.

Bottom line – Howlin Wolf is always riveting. I can play Smokestack Lighting ten times in a row and will still want to hear it an 11th time and that 11th time, not only will I not be tired of it, I will still get something new from it. A friend of mine said something along the lines, every time you hear Howlin Wolf you are immediately paying attention, you are immediately in his world. The Wee Small Hours of the Morning by Frank Sinatra is like that. Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan is like that. The Sun Sessions by Elvis... These recordings are perfect. They are always spellbinding and enthralling. No matter how many decades since they were made, the sound remains fresh and the meaning of the songs remain relevant. Every thing Howlin recorded is like that. Well, nearly every cut I’ve heard—and admittedly, mainly due to the haphazard way Howlin Wolf’s musical legacy has been handled, every track is not readily available.

Howlin Wolf is credited as the writer of Smokestack Lighting. He recorded a couple of early versions that only have snippets of the final classic and one line “shines like gold,” I’ve seen credited to a Charlie Patton song. It might be a mistake to think of some of the old Blues songs as carved out from whole cloth. They were not cranked out on demand like Brill Building hits. Many of the Blues songs began as a collection of lyrics and musical phrases that got kicked around for generations, sung by work crews in fields, by congregations Sunday Morning Celebrations and by belters in Juke Joints the night before. The lyrics may have been changed for the setting, and the sound of the song modified, depending on who was doing the singing. Referring to a train rolling through at night as Smokestack Lighting was probably not a phrase first coined by Mr. Charles Arthur Burnett. But he was able to take the melodies and themes that had somehow coalesced together, than with his distinctive vision, distilled them into an eternally haunting song by using the indelible, universal image of a train.

Aside from that distinct metaphor, I can’t quite hear every lyric in the Wolf recording. Even a google comes up with variances. There’s something about a baby sister—but it is it bit, hit or killed? You hear the line, Stop That Train pretty well but then the plea, let a poor boy ride, or is it a hobo ride? Something menacing is going on, some kind of escape is needed. Sometimes I hear this song and I think a broken hearted, rejected guy is hopping a train away from the woman he loved—or did the guy cheat with the baby sister? Or is something more sinister going on? Is it his baby sister? Why the urgency to get on the train? Has a murder occurred? In the end, it doesn’t matter. Facts alone will never be a substitute for truth.

In the film about Chess, Cadillac Records, there’s a scene about the recording of Smokestack Lighting. I loved this film, one of the better entries into the Musician-Bio genre. I don’t expect or really want accuracy from a docu-drama bio. Cadillac Records invokes the musicians, personalities and era in a compelling and believable fashion.
In the scene, the supposed rivalry between Muddy Waters and the Wolf—believably impersonated by Eamonn Walker—is exaggerated. The Wolf, as part of the competition with Waters, seductively sings Smokestack Lighting to Muddy’s girlfriend. He gives the song a threatening yet intensely alluring eroticism that never quite occurred to me before the film. Now I find overt sexuality to be another reasonable interpretation of the song. The film discovered another layer of meaning in Howlin’s locomotive metaphor.

In the reissue of Bear’s Choice, there’s an “alternate take” of the Grateful Dead’s version, sung by Pig Pen, from a series of 1971 Fillmore shows. Bear’s Choice is not a classic Grateful Dear Record; it’s really a record meant only for die-hard Dead Heads (I am quasi-die-hard). Their version of Smokestack is fascinating and compelling, but it probably will never appear on the list of top two dozen Dead Jams. The “alternate take” is even more sprawling than the official release. It lasts like 20 minutes — Wolf gets the job done in under three.

The performance showcases the under-appreciated vocal and harp skills of Pig Pen. The jam is also a nice snapshot of this period of the Dead, jamming their way out of trippy Acid Rock and into more straight forward (although still lengthy) Rock & Roll. In their version of Smokestack, the Dead explore the complexity of this unforgettable Blues riff. The musical partnership of Garcia, Weir and Lesh may have made a more distinctive mark in genres other than the Blues, but in this period, especially as led by the great Ron McKernan, the Grateful Dead could play and improvise the Blues with the best of them. They gave Cream (or the Dominoes), Hot Tuna and the Brothers Allman (as Scott Muni would bark), a run for their money.

The Dead’s Smokestack jam may be prolonged, dawdling and overly drawn out, but it also is that rare cover that makes you better understand the original. As Lesh goes through the Smokestack Lighting bass run and Weird strums the Smokestack chord changes, Garcia plays solo after solo. These solos, a rare exploration of Blues motifs by Garcia, typically seem endless. But as he takes his familiar trip to the stratosphere and back, he deconstructs the melody and illuminates the complexity of its structure. With Smokestack Lighting—particularly the alternate take on the expanded reissue of Bear’s Choice—the Grateful Dead do not just perform a cover of a Howlin Wolf classic. It isn’t just an homage either. The jam becomes a Talmudic musical commentary on the original text of Blues scripture.

People love the music of Howlin Wolf, and people love the Blues. What I find troubling is the all but nonexistent serious appreciation of the music and this transcendent master of the form. The Blues has a tougher row to hoe in the fields of recognition and appreciation compared with say, Jazz. That might be because the Blues has been around so long, and has gone through peaks and valleys of popularity and influence and it has acquired a lot of pop culture baggage, like the Blues Brothers, which maybe discourages serious appreciation.

Blues being some weird accident made by ex-slaves and idiot savants seems to be a pervasively persistent stereotype. Quite frankly, that’s the impression I got from that otherwise excellent PBS Blues series by Martin Scorsese.

We have a hard time accepting Golden Age Blues musicians as serious artists, as individuals who trained with mentors and who possess a serious vision for their music. Howlin Wolf (and Willie Dixon) songs are poetry, equal on that level to anything by Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Tom Waits and Dylan. Maybe they don’t name-check Rimbaud or Delmore Schwartz, and they may not have befriended famous Beat writers, but that doesn’t lessen the “literary” accomplishment of Classic Blues songs.

This bias against the Blues is not really about color either. Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley seem to get the critical credit they so richly deserve. Maybe the bias against Howlin Wolf is because like other Blues musicians from that era, he comes from the Rural South, growing up as the “other” in an Apartheid Society. Contemporary Cultures tends to depict Southern Artists, especially those from poor African American families, as artists in spite of themselves, as opposed to hard working visionaries who made sacrifices for their craft.

One of Howlin’s deceivingly simple songs is Natchez Mississippi Burning, and consists of Howlin asking, “did you hear about the burning, in Natchez Mississippi Town, and then proceeds to name the dead—Louise was there, Rita May was there.” The song builds its tragic drama with an emotional dialog between piano and guitar that is excruciatingly mournful, as Howlin intones the simple inquiry followed by name after name of the dead. People were burned alive, were burned to death, in an act that was likely Klan related terrorism. It’s up to the listener to figure it out, to realize that the names, followed by “was there,” that you are listening to a eulogy that resulted from a tragedy inflicted by evil men.

The best Blues songs never give the whole story away. They respect the intelligence of the listener—and expect that listener to in fact, hear all of the song. Natchez Burning is a devastating and personal eulogy relevant to anyone who has experienced tragic loss. Wolf and Willie Dixon never get recognized for this poetry. It pisses me off!!!

Many of the songs by Howlin revolve around his persona—the “wolf”—such as the “Mighty Wolf” in Trail Dragger—I’m a tail dragger, I’ll wipe out my tracks, when I get what I want, well I don’t come sneaking back. The essence of modern poetry—the I is Another dictum by Arthur Rimbaud or Whitman’s Song of the Self. The Wolf and these other Blues guys understood persona, used persona to make art that could be both personal and universal and yet for some reason, they are simply not given the credit that their songwriting peers in other genres receive. Too often, their use of persona is seen as instinctual, or a shtick, when in fact it was a deliberate artistic choice that fulfilled a songwriting vision.

Another great Howlin classic, “Who’ll be the Next One,” is about a cuckold lover who at one point tells the girlfriend, “blessed be your heart, cursed be your name, who’ll be the next one, darling, that you’ll put to shame.” Wolf closes the song, “Cheat if you want to darling', treat me unkind, Come back and love me, when you can find a little time.” We’re all victims of love sometimes, and it seems the narrator of this song resigns himself to living with her lies. This tragic, tortured tale of love, longing, and infidelity is told through unadorned lyrics. The apocryphal Hemmingway story, where he boasted he could write a short story in six words—Baby Shoes For Sale. Never Worn—that approach is at the core of Howlin’s Blues lyrics. It’s what he isn’t saying that tears the most at our hearts. Perceptive, clever and devestating, Howlin Wolf songs can be as weird and as moving as a Flannery O’Connor short story.

Howlin Wolf was taught guitar by Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. Legend has it that Johnson played guitar while Howlin Wolf would sing. Sonny Boy Williamson II taught Howlin Wolf to play harmonica. Howlin was “discovered” by Sam Phillips, the same man who discovered Elvis Presley. Howlin Wolf was in his forties when Phillip produced his first record, but Howlin had been playing the Blues—and making a living doing so—for about 20 years, playing juke joints and the like, what would later become known as the Chitlin Circuit. His first audiences were working-class African Americans surviving in the Jim Crow south.

Perhaps the inclination to consider Howlin Wolf purely a “natural” talent—as opposed to a serious and accomplished artist driven by a personal vision—is the fact he was functionally illiterate for most of his adult life. Although he always made a living from his art, the big success—hit records and big venues—came when he was well into his 50s. Keep in mind, in the late 1960s, the Doors, Cream, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix made the Blues immensely popular, they put the Blues onto the top 40. That was probably the peak of Blues popularity. Interest in Blues was also part of the folk music movement a few years earlier. In fact, Howlin Wolf played electric earlier in the day of the same night at Newport that Dylan plugged in. He also was backed by many of the same musicians, including Mike Bloomfield.

Howlin, who died in 1976, may not have been a Jimi, Mick or Eric, but he had become a star of some note. During these same years, Wolf was taking Continuing Education classes for adults at Chicago High Schools. In late middle-age, he learned how to read and eventually earned his GED. Some of the motivation was to sue Chess records for royalties and indeed, they were in litigation at the time of his death.

How frustrating that must have been for this man, not being able to read yet at the same time, thinking up lyrics, or interpreting the lyrics of artists like Willie Dixon with such feeling. Not being able to read yet knowing what words worked and how to give them power with his monumental voice. You can’t sing and use words to capture feelings and accompany music the way Wolf does and not love words. At the same time, he was unable to read words. How an individual endures that contradiction is unfathomable.

What a total and utter lack of hubris—that well into middle age—and let’s face it, most people hit 40 and switch on the auto-pilot for the rest of the haul—Chester Arthur Burnett learned how to read. An international star, beloved throughout Europe and still filling the black clubs of Chicago and the Chitlin circuit, playing the same festivals as the Butterfield Blues Band and Bob Dylan, Howlin Wolf secretly takes night courses to learn how to read. I can think of few better examples of courage than Howlin’s humble and private effort to learn a skill that racism deprived him of.

There is a well-done documentary on the Wolf that came out a few years ago—The Howlin Wolf Story—which has some fantastic footage of him in concert and especially rehearsing, where you can really see how deliberate he was. It wasn’t coasting on his immense talent, he worked hard with his musicians to get the sound he heard in his head.

Among his many talents was his being a band leader. He seems to control the arrangements. Both Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf recorded what were known as the London Sessions. The legends were backed by the British mega-star musicians of the era whom they inspired. The results, though compelling, are decidedly mixed, with the expected outcry from the purists. Nobody argues that the London cuts are as good as the original in either Muddy’s or Howlin’s case. But, the Wolf’s London Session album is far superior, more true to the man’s talent and vision. One reason is that the great Hubert Sumlin sits in, which is really just proving my larger point—that the Wolf was a band leader and as such, also an arranger. In fact, Muddy Waters was better served by his work with the Band and Johnny Winter a few years after the London gigs, a telling fact. He succeeded when working with established units of musicians where the Band Leader was already secured. In the Chess Records film, at one point Wolf—looking directly at Muddy—chides Leonard Chess for talking directly to Hubert, instead of to Howlin. “Don’t talk to him no more. You talk to me and I’ll tell him. I’m the Band Leader, I reckon you never worked with one before.”

Hubert Sumlin is revered by guitarists, credited as an influence to dozens of the greats. The core of Howlin’s classics—and for 20 years or so—Sumlin innovative guitar playing is heard. This dude picks a riff like it’s nobody’s business, enhancing the complexity of emotion in Wolf’s voice. His riffs—and the way he plays those riffs—resound to this day in rock & roll, jam-bands, and heavy metal. But even Hubert credits The Wolf for helping him find his guitar voice. Howlin told him to throw away the pick—Sumlin plays with his thumb, with his naked hand, uncommon for the guitarists in the genre. The Wolf’s mentoring of a good guitarist that transformed him into one of the all-time masters of the instrument is not some happy accident or a bewildering act of genius from a musical Rain Man. No, it is another example of a highly skilled artist, whose many talents also included band leader and arranger,

Besides the documentary, there is an excellent biography of Chester Arthur Burnett, Moanin' at Midnight, The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf, by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman (it’s available at the Main Branch of the Jersey City Public Library, which houses an excellent collection of musical history). There’s one scene in that book that is truly unforgettable and reveals the underlying pathos of the difficult life Howlin Wolf endured. After recording for Chess, having Blues hits and making a very comfortable living, Howlin is back near his delta home in rural Mississippi, seeking out his mother. Wolf came from a broken family and his childhood was one of work, abuse and severe poverty. He had long been estranged from his mother, a religious fanatic. Howlin met her and tried to give her money, a $500 bill according to some. Real money at the time. She just threw the cash on the ground, accused her son of playing the devil’s music. Never talked to him again.

You don’t have to be a psychologist—or Joseph Campbell—to understand how approval from parental role models is critical to the well-being of the human psyche. The description of this incident in the book is stunning. How this kind of anguish—a son’s love rejected by his own mother—affects someone is frightening to ponder. The stuff you must need to not just overcome this pain but turn it into art. That’s awe-inspiring. That’s the stuff of Greatness!

Is there room for another head on Mount Rushmore? Can we fit another throne in the Lincoln Monument? I think that’s what we should be thinking about when it comes to celebrating the Howlin Wolf Centennial. I might settle for a making readily available everything this man recorded... and a Presidential Proclamation.

The Howlin Wolf Centennial should be the beginning and not the end of the rediscovery of his music. That discovery is up to you. I promise you this. The songs of Howlin Wolf reveal the mysteries of the heart. They will make you a better human being.

Please Visit: http://www.howlinwolf.com/


  1. A truly phenomenal posting, and one that I utterly agree with to my deepest core.
    Is it true that this Titan of 20th Century music was the first Afro-American to feature on a US Mail stamp?
    Also, there is the integrity of the social security provision he made for his band members in their later lives.
    I shall think of you and your compatriots on June 10 2010.

  2. A fascinating and insightful commentary on the value of this giant of the blues. Thank you!